Out on your own, not out on a limb

The Independent Traveller's World aims to prepare free spirits for the unexpected. By Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel
Travel is terrifying. You get ill, lose your passport and money, and feel lonely - and that's just on the Gatwick Express. More seriously, events this week have brought home the chilling reality behind some of the seductive images of travel: the disappearance of a British backpacker in Thailand, and the kidnapping of two tourists in Costa Rica have concentrated the minds of intending travellers. The world beyond the glossy brochures is a perplexing place; "independent" need not imply "intrepid", but sometimes it feels as if it does.

"We are in the business of allaying fears, offering advice and, most important, providing encouragement," says Helen Caldwell, who launched the first Independent Traveller's World at Bristol's Watershed Media Centre in 1993. Since then it has expanded considerably, but remains a celebration of the sort of world that goes unrecognised by high-street travel agencies. Whether you seek reassurance or merely insurance, the Watershed will become a real travellers' souk over the weekend of 19 to 21 February. Overland truck operators, travel publishers and discount ticket agencies will be vying for the hearts and passports of an estimated 6,000 travellers.

The idea that planning a trip should be as exciting as talking about it afterwards was developed jointly by Helen Caldwell and her partner Mark Renwick. The beauty of it, he says, is that "you can arrive with nothing but good intentions and depart with precise travel plans". People who have been there, done that and have the photos (and bruises) to prove it will reveal the rewards and risks of cycling to Peking or canoeing the Amazon. In a programme of talks and workshops, recently returned travellers provide the latest on hot new destinations and cool travel tips. Then you can check out air fares, buy a guidebook or two, and find out what health precautions you need.

If a post-Christmas cashflow crisis has given you a nasty scare, Susan Griffith - author of Work Your Way Around the World - is on hand with advice about fish-packing in Iceland or teaching English in Peru.

For some, the most terrifying thing about travel in the late Nineties is the way that hi-tech seems to have hijacked it. So Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides, will be taking travellers on a tour around the Internet, where the Rough Guide to the USA now resides, constantly updated by travellers. And should the prospect of writing about travel frighten you more than the journey itself, a travel-writing workshop could put your mind at rest. One of the contributors is Rory McLean, who went on from winning an Independent travel-writing competition to become an established writer and broadcaster.

The Independent has been closely involved with the event from the outset, and the newspaper's travel team will again be represented at Bristol. "We see it as an excellent opportunity to meet travellers and the travel industry, and to get feedback from readers," says Harriet O'Brien, who edits these pages. "The event helps keep us sharp - at the cutting edge of travel journalism."

Like the Independent's travel coverage, the event seeks to prove than you need not be young, rich nor superhumanly fit to see the real world. Neither does it shirk from the dangers of travel - both to travellers, and to the planet. Equipment companies will be demonstrating water filters and protection against mosquitoes, while speakers focus on the need for cultural and environmental sensitivity among travellers.

The challenge of independent travel is not for everyone, and some visitors may find the main effect of the event is to deter them; better you find out on a winter weekend in Bristol than halfway up the Orinoco without a paddle. The rest of us can find inspiration, and take comfort from fellow travellers: this need not be the year of living dangerously.

Independent Traveller's World 1996

Bristol: Watershed Media Centre, 19-21 January. Admission on Friday is pounds 2; on Saturday and Sunday, pounds 3.50.

London: Business Design Centre, Islington, 9-11 February. Friday pounds 3, Saturday and Sunday pounds 5.

Edinburgh: Assembly Rooms, 54 George Street, 2-3 March. Admission pounds 3.50

Readers of the Independent and Independent on Sunday are entitled to a pounds 1 discount on the normal admission price for Saturday and Sunday by producing a copy of that day's newspaper. Call 0117-930 4440 or fax 0117- 987 2627 for more details of Independent Traveller's World events.

On the travel page of Section Two next Wednesday, Jeremy Skidmore of the industry journal Travel Weekly will be giving the inside track on the high-street travel wars.